The BJP appears to believe that the path to victory in 2019 flows through securing control of as many state governments as possible. Hence the fiasco in Karnataka.
That a clear winner of the Assembly polls in Karnataka (i.e. a party securing a majority on its own) would have secured pole position in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls is obvious. Had the Congress Party secured a majority, it would have proved its ability to successfully challenge the BJP in future contests. However, the Congress fared poorly in seats when compared to its tally in 2013, while even the seat score of the Janata Dal (Secular) fell. In contrast, the BJP secured more than double the seats it had won the last time around, which made it the only party of the trio with the right to claim a “moral” victory in the polls. This would have been possible were the party to have decided at the start to allow the JD(S) and the Congress Party to form the government in the state, given that their poll losses made both “losers” rather than “winners”. Only by acting as a strong opposition can the BJP put on the defensive the incoming Congress-JD(S) government in Karnataka, but this will not be easy under the leadership of B.S. Yeddyurappa. For Kumaraswamy is a wily politician with the same level of skills as his father H.D. Deve Gowda.
Not forming the government will crimp the financial health of the BJP in Karnataka. The financial fortunes of the JD(S) will rise substantially, while the Congress retains most of the liquidity the party enjoyed during five years of incumbency, were the Congress-JD(S) to assume power. However, while financial resources are important in an election, this is not enough. High spending power can succeed only as an add-on to the good performance of the party in power or as a boost to the seat trajectory of the opposition, but only in a state where the ruling party is encountering substantial headwinds as a consequence of bad performance. The Uttar Pradesh Assembly result had little to do with demonetisation and much to do with the way in which the BSP sought to wean away Muslim voters from the SP, in the process alienating other possible pools of support, while ultimately showing itself unable to persuade significant numbers of Muslim voters to cast their ballots for Mayawati, rather than for the Akhilesh-Rahul combo. Pandering to the minority fringe carries electoral risks. From the 1990s, a reaction has gathered traction within the Hindu community against the implicit premise in “secularism” as practised in India, which is that the majority community should be treated the way minorities are in several countries (i.e. be discriminated against by government). Such a mood is still the BJP’s best bet in 2019.
This is so despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi apparently deciding that it will only be in a second term that he removes discriminatory edicts and regulations that handicap the majority community, including those dating back to the British period. This has disappointed some of his 2014 voters, but most believe that while there is a reasonable chance of such dreams such as a Ram Mandir coming up during Modi’s tenure, it is unlikely that the leaders of the major opposition parties would take the risk of annoying the 2% of the Muslim community who are Wahhabi by going ahead with the construction of the temple. The fact is that 98% of Muslims would have no problem with a Ram Temple coming up in Ayodhya. Sadly, the modern, moderate Muslim has—especially after 1947—been ignored by both the media as well as the governance mechanism within our country. While even a leader with the mass appeal of Jawaharlal Nehru did not risk introducing reforms in the Muslim community in the 1950s the way he went ahead with the Hindus, Prime Minister Modi has gone ahead with reformist measures braving Wahhabi ire, such as the ordinance banning the practice of Triple Talaq. While this legislation suffers from infirmities, as for example making arrest and incarceration in such cases mandatory, rather than leaving these to the discretion of the aggrieved spouse, overall it represents a move away from the longstanding governmental practice of conflating the prejudices of the Wahhabis within the Muslims as representing that of the entire community. Out of fear of “Muslim” (i.e. Wahhabi) blowback, successive Prime Ministers have ignored the need to equalise laws and practices across all faiths. Instead, they indulged the Wahhabi fringe through policies crafted to appeal to this segment. That the BJP under Modi seems the only national party to sense and respond to the awakening of Hindu majority consciousness across the country has been a primary factor behind its poll victories. Interestingly, the unwillingness of the Vajpayee government to move beyond past practices where communal dynamics were concerned led to enough supporters staying away from voting during the 2004 polls to ensure a UPA victory. However, the majority-bashing policies of Manmohan Singh led to Modi securing a majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
Judging by its post-2014 electoral strategy, the BJP appears to believe that the path to victory in 2019 flows through securing control of as many state governments as possible. Hence the fiasco in Karnataka. The fact is that few state governments would be able to satisfy the expectations of voters, with the result that an anti-incumbency mood may grow that would affect the Lok Sabha polls. Such a factor may make many of the states under the BJP an electoral liability, which is clearly the case in some states. In India, the only victory that counts is that won for control of the Lok Sabha. Even if a party or combination controls very few states but secures a majority in the Lok Sabha, such a party would be much better positioned nationally than a party which controls several states, but has lost the Lok Sabha to its rival. The BJP’s tactics since the results of the 2018 Assembly polls in Karnataka got declared have made opposition unity a certainty in several states (including Karnataka), a factor which could cause the BJP major headaches in the coming parliamentary polls.